A topsy-turvy league

In Ma­jor League Base­ball, the los­ing teams to­day are to­mor­row’s con­tenders, play­ers can turn around fast and an­a­lyt­i­cal tweaks trans­form teams

The National - News - Sport - - TENNIS - Gregg Pat­ton sports@then­ational.ae

Base­ball’s cel­lar and ceil­ing are closer to­gether than other sports

Per­haps the most im­por­tant thing that Ma­jor League Base­ball has taught us in re­cent years is that win­ning is pos­si­ble for ev­ery­one. To­day’s losers are to­mor­row’s con­tenders, or even cham­pi­ons. Lit­er­ally.

It is not just that the Chicago Cubs ended their 109-year-old World Se­ries cham­pi­onship drought last sea­son. It is the pro­lif­er­a­tion of quick turn­around sea­sons, es­pe­cially this year. A hand­ful of dreary 2016 flops are now hunt­ing the play-offs.

The Min­nesota Twins en­dured a 59-103 calamity a year ago, the worst of their 56 years in the Twin Cities.

To­day they are in wild card po­si­tion, just be­hind the league cham­pion Cleve­land In­di­ans in the Amer­i­can League Cen­tral.

The Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs won 69 games in 2016. Now they have the sec­ond best record in the Na­tional League.

The Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers won 73 games last year and were fourth in the Na­tional League Cen­tral, a di­vi­sion they now lead.

The Colorado Rock­ies are com­ing off six con­sec­u­tive los­ing sea­sons, but are sit­ting in con­trol of a wild-card play-off spot half­way through this year. The Tampa Bay Rays won 68 games last sea­son, but now are one only one game out of a wild­card spot.

Base­ball is truly the “hope springs eter­nal” sport.

Con­trast it with the Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion, which pro­duced its oh-so-pre­dictable, third con­sec­u­tive fi­nals matchup be­tween the Golden State War­riors and the Cleve­land Cava­liers. The only thing as certain as that meet­ing was that the Sacra­mento Kings, the Brook­lyn Nets and a hand­ful of oth­ers had ab­so­lutely no chance of reach­ing the post­sea­son.

When the Na­tional Foot­ball League be­gins play later this sum­mer, rest as­sured that the Cleve­land Browns, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Los An­ge­les Rams, Jack­sonville Jaguars and Los An­ge­les Charg­ers will not be play-offs-bound.

Only the sud­den ac­qui­si­tion of a su­per­star player, or the rare, overnight devel­op­ment of a solid core of play­ers turns NBA and NFL teams from bot­tom-feed­ers into in­stant con­tenders.

So why is MLB so friendly to the worst-to-first phe­nom­e­non? For starters, base­ball’s cel­lar and ceil­ing are closer to­gether than other sports. MLB’s best teams tend to win about 60 per cent of their games.

The worst teams still win four out of 10. That means there is less ground to make up.

The NBA’s and NFL’s elite teams win at least 75 per cent of their games, while their mis­fits win just two or three out of 10.

In base­ball, even the bright­est stars can ex­pect se­ri­ous per­for­mance swings from one year to the next. And good play­ers can be ex­cel­lent for a sea­son, pro­pel­ling their teams from bot­tom shelf to top.

In Ari­zona, third base­man Jake Lamb is hav­ing a break­out year with 17 home runs and 62 runs bat­ted in.

For­mer Cy Young Award win­ner Zack Greinke has fol­lowed up his lousy 2016 with an All-Star-like 2017.

Most im­por­tantly, their peren­nial su­per­star Paul Gold­schmidt is healthy and heroic again, with a 1.027 on base-plus-slug­ging (OPS).

Some­times it does not take much. Mil­wau­kee have two newcomers who have lifted them into con­tention, ahead of the back­slid­ing cham­pion Cubs.

Travis Shaw and Eric Thames have 37 homers and 97 RBI be­tween them.

An­a­lyt­i­cal tweaks also can help ter­ri­ble teams im­prove. Min­nesota ac­tively re­made them­selves into a bril­liant de­fen­sive team, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing of­fence.

Tampa Bay have their usual pitch­ing depth, but also gam­bled suc­cess­fully on a line-up packed with one-di­men­sional slug­gers that have them No 3 in homers in MLB.

Base­ball has be­come an op­ti­mist’s play­ground. Yes, the Mi­ami Mar­lins may be on their way to their eighth con­sec­u­tive los­ing sea­son. All that means is, do not dis­miss the Fish in ’18.

Adam Glanz­man / Getty Im­ages

Joe Mauer, right, high-fives Rob­bie Gross­man of the Min­nesota Twins, who are in wild card po­si­tion a year af­ter suf­fer­ing their worst de­feat.

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